What Does a Literary Agent Actually Do?

12th October 2020
Article
3 min read
Edited
11th August 2022
Guide to How to Hook an Agent

In a nutshell, the job of a literary agent is to sell your manuscript to publishers and secure terms beneficial in both the short- and long-term life of your book. They understand you creatively and look to support and develop your career as a writer. Basically, agents act on your behalf by championing your book, brokering the best deal possible for it, and acting as a buffer between you and your publisher. They do the worrying so you can do the writing.

Broadly speaking, an agent’s job can be broken down into three areas: creativebusiness , and people-related.

In a creative sense, an agent has to be in sync with what their writers are working towards and hone manuscripts so that they reach their potential ahead of going out to publishers. In being offered representation, you will have gained a passionate, influential supporter of your book and creative outlook in general. Agents may work through several versions of your manuscript with you ahead of sending it out to commissioning editors they have identified as potentially interested in bidding for the rights to your book. If the process of rewriting means tightening up character arcs, concentrating on giving your book more ‘heart’ or restructuring to create a pacier plot, then your agent will tell you straight. This requires you, the writer, to trust them and be willing to let go of your book enough to be guided by someone with your best interests at heart and an eye on what they know editors are looking for. Before approaching an agent you should have a reasonable idea where your book would sit within a bookstore, and an agent will bring further genre-specific expertise to the table. As a result, they will push your work to a level they believe to be as market-ready as possible, and then send it out to commissioning editors.

This overarching appreciation of publishing as a commercial enterprise is where an agent’s creative support meets their eye for business. Agents constantly have their ear to the ground for deals being done; the sorts of books editors are buying and where rights are being sold for particular books. This informs their strategy when it comes to approaching potential buyers of a manuscript, and also how much to push for during financial negotiations. All of which, of course, needs to be tied up contractually, and an agent’s keen eye for small print is something that benefits their authors. It’s the meat and potatoes of an agent’s job to look into any sort of contractual query (financial or otherwise) and find solutions so that their authors are rewarded for their writing.

The third attribute of a literary agent complements both the creative and commercial elements of their role. Like most jobs in the Arts (and beyond!) being able to relate to people counts for a great deal. The business side of their job, for example, comes down to having good contacts. This requires acquiring up an understanding of what commissioning editors have on their wish-list, and this is built up over time through chance conversations and/or more formal meetings. These are the moments they can put forward manuscripts, either by planting a seed and mentioning how excited they are by a book one of their unpublished clients is putting finishing touches to, or by more seriously proclaiming a book to be ready and one an editor must read. As a yet-to-be published writer, this, as far as you’re concerned, is the primary role of the agent; to champion your book and pitch it with such passion that an editor feels compelled to put everything else aside and read it. Whether it be in-person over a coffee or by email, an agent’s ability to transfer their enthusiasm for your project is integral to their job and will open doors for your book.

Being able to relate to people is more than an agent being a good salesperson for their authors, though. There’s a huge difference in approach between chasing royalty payments or interrogating the terms of a publishing agreement, for example, and speaking to an overwhelmed debut author suddenly stifled by ‘imposter’ syndrome. In fact, perhaps the greatest test of an agent’s emotional dexterity is their handling of what brings the best out of their authors. Do they need ‘tough love’ and hard deadlines, or will they respond more to a sympathetic ear that coaxes them through a crisis of confidence?

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